Sir Ron Dearing's drive to promote philosophical thinking skills among secondary pupils has received a boost with the publication of new ethics-oriented short courses in religious education, writes Nicholas Pyke.
In his recent review of 16 to 19 education, Sir Ron calls on the exam boards to produce A-level courses in "the critical examination of knowledge".
This would make tough demands on students. It would involve: reflection on "the bases of knowledge and experience"; understanding of "subjective and ideological biases"; and the development of "structured and logical thinking" expressed in rational argument.
Lessons devoted to thinking skills or philosophy are rare in this country, although they are incorporated in the International Baccalaureate.
But now there are moves to emphasise the philosophical element of religious education at GCSE level, the subject which in Britain has traditionally taken up the curriculum space allocated to philosophy in some other countries, such as France.
For the first time, the examination boards have produced syllabuses designed for 5 per cent of the curriculum time in RE (an effort to provide some structure for pupils who are uninterested in spending a full 10 per cent on the subject). And these courses are notable for their concern with ethical discussion.
The short-course syllabus D, called "Thinking about God and Morality", produced by the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, is probably the most striking example.
The first section, "Thinking about God", requires pupils to discuss the origins and design of the universe; the problem of suffering; and the problem of evil as well as more narrowly religious questions.
In the second part, "Thinking about Morality", students must get to grips with: "absolute and relative morality", "sources of moral authority", and the "relationship between belief and behaviour". These will be associated with a spread of topical moral debates, including those on: euthanasia, capital punishment, abortion, sex, marriage and divorce, wealth and poverty, and war and peace.